The Many Layers of Candlemas Day

February 2nd is the feast of Candlemas. I love this celebration because it is beautifully multi-layered and complex.

On Candlemas day, we celebrate the story of the baby Jesus being presented in the temple forty days after his birth. (If you want to read the story, you can find it in Luke 2:22-38.) There is a touching moment when an elderly man named Simeon shows up to hold and bless the child. He has lived a very long time, holding to a promise given to him that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. In this moment is the meeting of the Old Testament and the New Testament. Because of this event, February 2nd is first called the Presentation of the Lord.

The Cradle and the Cross Meet on Candlemas Day

There is another layer. According to the ancient law of Israel, woman underwent a ceremony of purification after the birth of their child. And so we have the story of Mary coming to the temple to offer her sacrifice to God. The day is also about Mary as mother of the Christ. In fact, the story foreshadows the pain that Mary will suffer as she will later watch her son die on the cross. The end is linked to the beginning. For this reason, February 2nd is also called The Purification of Mary.

Looking Forward with Hope

Then there is another layer. When Simeon is holding the baby Jesus, he praises God. Part of his song of praise says that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32) This image of Christ as light is central to Christian worship. It is why we light candles. They are a sign that the light of Christ burns brightly in the midst of suffering and division. When we get to the liturgical celebration of the Great Vigil of Easter, the Paschal (Easter) candle is processed to the front of the church while we loudly chant the proclamation: “The light of Christ! Thanks be to God!” Because of this image of light coming into the world to enlighten us, churches bless candles on February 2nd to use for the coming year. This is why the day is also called Candlemas.

There is yet another layer. The church calendar also gives us connections to the yearly solar calendar that organizes our lives. Candlemas day falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is the time of the year in which the days become noticeably longer. I am also told that it is the time of year when the sap begins to run in the trees. Therefore, as we celebrate this feast, we rejoice in the natural turn of the year as the days begin to brighten. It helps us understand that the world of nature itself teaches us deep truths about the love and grace of God.

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